A Whole Lot Of Not Quitting

On Sunday, Carol Dysinger won the Oscar for her short documentary, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl).

It’s a delightful film that will make you both laugh and cry, but this post isn’t a film review. It’s about a life lesson that I learned from her.

In 1977, when Dysinger was twenty-two years old, she won the coveted Student Academy Award. Frank Capra, famed director of You Can’t Take it with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, presented the award. It was (and is) a big deal — of all the student films made around the world, only one can win. Everyone, including Dysinger, assumed her career would take off like a rocketship from there.

Of course that stuff only happens in the movies. 

Dysinger’s real story was more of a struggle. She has worked in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, making documentaries that won prizes and grants from top festivals. But nothing compared to her early win.

I met Dysinger in 2009 when I joined a grad film program where she was the editing professor. She was working on a film called One Bullet Afghanistan, which, more than twelve years later, she’s still working on.  

It was during this time that Dysinger was asked to make a film about the girls of Skateistan — a school where underprivileged kids learn basic academics and how to skate. She accepted. Then this film, this side project, just took off.

Learning to Skateboard was nominated at major festivals and won at Tribeca and the BAFTAs before winning the Oscar for Documentary Short Subject. 

43 years after Carol Dysinger won the student academy award, she won the grown-up version. 

When I was her student, Dysinger’s favorite piece of advice was that becoming a filmmaker would take “a whole lot of not quitting” — a phrase she repeated during her acceptance speech. 

A whole lot of not quitting. That’s great advice for pretty much anything. Everything takes much, much longer than we think it will. We get frustrated, upset and dejected. After six years or ten, we give up. 

Sometimes quitting is the right choice. But often, those who reach the pinnacle do so not with shortcuts or luck, but because of a whole lot of not quitting. For decades.  

I’m thrilled to see one of the good ones succeed — four long decades after her first taste of success.

Your beach, in Manhattan -

Your beach, in Manhattan

The beach is always there: you just have to conceive of it. It follows that those who fail to find their beach are, in the final analysis, mentally fragile; in Manhattan terms, simply weak. Jack Donaghy’s verbal swordplay with Liz Lemon was a comic rendering of the various things many citizens of Manhattan have come to regard as fatal weakness: childlessness, obesity, poverty. To find your beach you have to be ruthless. Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment—as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything—not even reality—to impinge upon that clear field of blue.

Zadie Smith, on Manhattan.

Such a great piece on the city, warts and all, and on creating in the city.

Finally the greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization. Here you will be free to stretch yourself to your limit, to find the beach that is yours alone. But sooner or later you will be sitting on that beach wondering what comes next. I can see my own beach ahead now, as the children grow, as the practical limits fade; I see afresh the huge privilege of my position; it reclarifies itself. Under the protection of a university I live on one of the most privileged strips of built-up beach in the world, among people who believe they have no limits and who push me, by their very proximity, into the same useful delusion, now and then.

It is such a good town in which to work and work. You can find your beach here, find it falsely, but convincingly, still thinking of Manhattan as an isle of writers and artists—of downtown underground wildlings and uptown intellectuals—against all evidence to the contrary. Oh, you still see them occasionally here and there, but unless they are under the protection of a university—or have sold that TV show—they are all of them, every single last one of them, in Brooklyn.

Happy Birthday, A&L

Four years ago today, A&L were born. Happy Birthday, cuties!!


I feel a special connection to A&L even though I haven’t seen them for over two years. I was there when their dads went through the process of choosing a donor and surrogate. I remember the day they were born so clearly… when A called me from the hospital all excited about his babies.

But this year, I’m especially excited because we hope to hang out with the daddies and the kiddies in just over two months! Can’t wait.

Nobel Prize for IVF pioneers

It is wonderful news that Dr. Robert G. Edwards and Dr. Patrick Steptoe won the Nobel Prize for medicine. Their research has helped millions of couples around the world and I am personally grateful to them for allowing us the chance to have a family.

The NY Times article talking about their accomplishments also talked about the challenges they faced.

Both Dr. Edwards and Dr. Steptoe had to endure an unremitting barrage of criticism while developing their technique. Dr. Steptoe “faced immense clinical criticism over his laparoscopy, even being isolated at clinical meetings in London,” Dr. Edwards wrote in the journal Nature Medicine in 2001 after receiving the Lasker award. “Ethicists decried us, forecasting abnormal babies, misleading the infertile and misrepresenting our work as really acquiring human embryos for research.”

What does this remind you of? So many parallels to the debates that rage today…

If the conservative right-wing was in charge, science would not progress on so many dimensions. If they had got their way back in the ’70s and ’80s, there would be an incredible number of childless couples today.

Let’s all be thankful that they didn’t win then and I hope they don’t win now.

20-somethings: spoiled and lazy

Why won’t kids grow up? Short answer: Because we let them, and because we fetishize youth.

That pretty much sums up the overly-long article in the New York Times that explores why 20-somethings refuse to grow up.

I’ve been stunned at the behavior of a lot of 20-somethings. They seem to be constantly finding themselves, making excuses “oh, toughest economy to graduate in”, and moving back home after graduation. Really? If the economy is so tough, man up and accept a job that you think is beneath you and yes, you don’t get to live on Park Avenue if that happens and no, you really shouldn’t continue to live at home either!

Oh, but that not possible because they are coddled and supported by their parents.

Nor do parents expect their children to grow up right away — and they might not even want them to. Parents might regret having themselves jumped into marriage or a career and hope for more considered choices for their children. Or they might want to hold on to a reassuring connection with their children as the kids leave home. If they were “helicopter parents” — a term that describes heavily invested parents who hover over their children, swooping down to take charge and solve problems at a moment’s notice — they might keep hovering and problem-solving long past the time when their children should be solving problems on their own. This might, in a strange way, be part of what keeps their grown children in the limbo between adolescence and adulthood. It can be hard sometimes to tease out to what extent a child doesn’t quite want to grow up and to what extent a parent doesn’t quite want to let go.

But, but… I have seen high-functioning 20-year olds – they get jobs, work their asses off, live within their means, go to graduate school, move out and live on their own, and even, gasp!, get promotions and establish themselves. So clearly it is not all 20-somethings who go through this phase.

Ah, but there, finally at the end of the very, very long article, it comes to the core of the issue – “emerging adulthood” is not something everyone goes through unlike adolescence.

To qualify as a developmental stage, emerging adulthood must be both universal and essential.

Oh. My. God. You just wasted thousands of words on a theory that basically justifies spoiled brats? Grow up brats. Parents, stop coddling your kids and pretending you are a self-actualized parent.

And the New York Times – please, can we not waste ink on the privileged, spoiled lot? Thank you!

Reuse and recycling

Plastic water bottles and coffee cups drive me crazy since they are such one-time use products. I never buy water in plastic bottles – I have a little metal water bottles and I just refill those.

I was excited to see Fast Company’s article on water bottles which lays out the landscape but also brainstorms ideas on how to change consumer behavior.

Some of the ideas like the Drink Tap Water bottle tops are great in terms of design and functionality. It’s also so easy to carry around by the tap on top. Wonderful.

I also really liked the LUNAR Elements design of a bottle that a consumer returns at the supermarket and it get’s etched with a news headline of the day – over time, the bottle “ages” with more and more headlines. Really cool (check out the article for more details).

I like the design and the thinking, but at the end of the day, I think the change has to be driven by cost and ease. My metal bottle was about $18. Not cheap. But that’s only about 9 bottles of water – something I might have bought in a couple of weeks. So it was worth it.

The next issue is ease – if you forget your water bottle, what are the options but to buy… What if the water companies used metal like soda cans instead of plastic. A thin metal can of water instead of a plastic bottle. I’d buy it.

As a frequent coffee shop visitor, my next pet peeve is coffee cups. I was excited when I saw the Starbucks Coffee Cup Challenge. The idea of rewarding every 10th person who bring in a reusable cup is a great idea – reward for good behavior will likely change behavior.

But for the other 9 people who don’t bring in a reusable cup, what’s the alternative? The cup itself doesn’t bother me so much because it’s in paper, but what bothers me is the lid.It’s entirely in plastic. Do we need the whole lid to be plastic? What if just the area within the red rectangle was plastic – the area where a customer’s mouth touches the product and where the hot liquid touches the bottom of the up. The rest could be heavy cardboard couldn’t it? At least that way you’d eliminate 60% of the plastic…

And the cold beverage cups at Starbucks? Entirely plastic with a huge plastic dome of a lid to accommodate the whipped cream. Total disaster. Why can’t cold beverages be in paper cups too? Am I missing something here?


Image of Drink Tap Water – All rights, Fast Company

Image of Starbucks Lid – All rights, Rantwick

Starbucks – back to its roots

When I was at eBay, Howard Schultz, the Chairman and founder of Starbucks was on the Board and he came to speak at one of the leadership meetings. They also handed out his book, Pour Your Heart Into It.

He was such an exceptional, inspirational speaker that I went home and read his book immediately. I loved it. It was the story of an entrepreneur. The story of a man who wanted to build a third place where people congregated – not work, not home, but a comfortable other place where they felt welcome.

When Schultz was no longer the CEO, it felt like Starbucks sort of lost its way. They tried things halfheartedly, became totally cookie cutter, and in fact, became a the soulless chain Schultz always wanted it not to be. But because of the talk and because of his book, I stayed a loyal Starbucks customer1.

The news release that Starbucks is going to offer free wifi is, to me, Starbucks going back to its roots. People today are ultra connected and their third place needs to be connected, comfortable and free. Starbucks is doing that. And it’s doing more. Not only is it free, they are welcoming you with a free paper – premium subscriptions through the Starbucks Digital Network.

Everyone talks about how this is very smart. And yes, it is. But, really it’s just Starbucks going back to the roots that Schultz always wanted for it. Welcome back to the helm, Howard Schultz. I hope you reclaim the company you started and steer it back on course.

  1. In fact, after not being in New York for a week, this morning I lost my FourSquare mayorship of my neighborhood Starbucks 

Valuing forests

This is a brilliant example of using logic and business sense to preserve our forests. I wish more NGOs adopted this approach.

A MOST unusual document landed on your correspondent’s desk recently: a financial report from a rainforest. Iwokrama, a 370,000-hectare rainforest in central Guyana, announced that it was in profit. It added, more intriguingly, that rainforests had entered the “global economy”.

Iwokrama is part of the largest expanse of undisturbed rainforest in the world, which overlies the Guiana Shield. It has a unique history. In 1989 the president of Guyana had the foresight to give the forest as a gift to the Commonwealth for research into global warming. Today it is administered by an international board of trustees, who have devolved the day-to-day management to the Iwokrama International Centre. It is this centre that has been working to exploit the forest sustainably.

Edward Glover, one of Iwokrama’s board of trustees, says that it became clear more than a decade ago that the forest could not rely on donor funding to survive, so it had to look elsewhere for finance. The centre’s first job was to identify the forest’s assets and to exploit them. It seems to have perfected its art. Today the centre makes money in areas such as ecotourism, timber-extraction, forest-products such as honey and oils, bio-prospecting and forestry research. Its results for 2008 reveal that it made a surplus for the first time that year, with revenues of $2.4m and a profit of $800,000. The previous year it had lost $200,000. Revenues from timber were up by 44%, ecotourism by 26% and training by 22%.

When forests vanish, people suffer. That is why many believe that there is an urgent need to bring forests onto the global financial balance sheet. Last year Pavan Sukhdev, an economist at Deutsche Bank, reported that the world was losing natural capital worth between $2 trillion and $5 trillion every year as a result of deforestation alone. If money could be made by selling these ecosystem services, then the financial equation for forests would change.

Rainforests | Growing on trees | The Economist.

The carcinogen-free store

In the past couple of weeks I’ve had several people say to me “Is it me or am I hearing the term cancer more and more?” Knowing a clutch of people who have or are dealing with the big C, I’ve had the same thought in my head for the past several months.

What’s going on – is it our lifestyles – what we eat, how much we sleep, how much we drink? Is it environmental – the chemicals in the everything, the air we breathe? Is it that diagnostics are getting better – technology is catching tumors that might have gone undetected in the past? Is it that I’ve reached an age where my friends are just entering the zone of risk and the parents are firmly in the risk zone?

It is probably a combination of everything.

But as I think about what I can control, I would love to be able to consume “safer” products. Of course every product is made of chemicals and not all chemicals are bad, but we know there are some which are or could be carcinogenic. I’d like to avoid those.

The only way for me to do that right now is to read a ton, educate myself on which chemicals are dangerous and then read every single label to ensure it doesn’t contain any chemical on that list.

But there has to be a better way – couldn’t there be a store that did this research and only carried the products that fell within the bounds? Since I’d want these safe products in every category, it would have to be a really broad selection – cooking utensils, clothing, accessories, etc.

Think of Amazon, but with a layer on top of it “carcinogen free (CF)”. This entity would do the research and identify the products in several categories that are safer. It then sets up it’s CF Store. All the items are on Amazon, this is just the CF Store’s selected short list. When a user shops at this store, the transaction is completed on Amazon and the CF Store gets a cut. There are no guarantees with this stuff, so the CF Store would do a to-the-best-of-our-abilities thing. But that’s a heck of a lot better than what I can do right now.

The CF store doesn’t just have to be the CF Store alone. It could also be the CF and Green Store that also picks environmentally friendly products. That would just be another slice of what’s available on Amazon.

Or what if on Amazon itself, there were filters- CF, Green etc., in addition to the Brand, Material and Color filters that already exist. I do a search and check the filters that are important to me. As I check more filters, the number of products reduce, but hey, I’m willing to deal with less choice for being more picky.

Does something like this exist? If it does, let me know and sign me up.

Here’s to the crazies

The crazy people will change the world for the better. The people who hear they are insane, it can’t be done, it’s silly to do it *now* and still go ahead and pursue their dreams – these are the folks that will have a positive impact on large groups of people.

The crazy people are special in many ways – most importantly, they are super-smart, very capable, confident, and almost universally acknowledged for their capabilities (unless you are an emerging crazy, in which case you have yet to be universally acknowledged)1

The people who rely on the status quo, have never earned a job or title on their own, and skate along trying to fool people might be fine now, but average is all they’ll ever be. These people look down on the crazies. They may secretly want to be one of the crazies, but only for the glory that will eventually await the crazies – they don’t want to do the hard, grinding work that it will take for the crazies to succeed. And therein lies the core reason they’ll always just aspire to mediocrity.

The truly bold ones – the ones who may fail big, the ones jump off the treadmill of safety – are the most likely to win big too.

This wonderful piece talks about how young crazies from Yale are pursuing their dreams.

it’s refreshing to know that the world keeps minting idealistic young people who are not waiting for governments to act, but are starting their own projects and driving innovation.

I know of a couple of others who had the courage and capabilities to walk away from secure, stable jobs to venture out on their own. To those crazies, whether you are in Madras, London or New York, my most sincere good wishes. May you soar. May your hard work and your idealism be rewarded. I’m rooting for you – you’re inspirational.

  1. My “crazies” are different from Hugh’s Crazy  Deranged Fools in some ways. CDFs seem to be creative or artistic, my crazies can be pure business folks although successful business folks have to be creative too. And my crazies may not pay the bills for a while – they will live without if they have to, they will adjust their lifestyle downwards. CDFs could work alone but my crazies want to start companies/ventures/projects. I am not quite a crazy, but I am a CDF.